Little Black Book: Cusco, Peru & the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
If the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu aren’t currently destinations on your bucket list, you may want to rethink your vacation aspirations. Now that UNESCO added the ancient wonder to its list of the 7 New Wonders of the World, there’s really no excuse. Strap on your hiking backpack, pull on those boots and get ready for the experience of a lifetime.
Where To Stay:
Between the change in altitude and the impending four days and three nights spent in the mountains, you’ll want to spoil yourself a little bit in Cusco. Starwood’s Luxury Collection Hotel in the heart of the city provides a perfect destination before and after your trek on the Inca Trail. With luxury accommodations and appropriately designed interiors and courtyards, the hotel will quickly become your favorite resting spot. Make sure to secure a reservation in the hotel’s top notch spa for your return to Cusco after visiting Machu Picchu so your muscles can rejuvenate.
Where To Eat:
You haven’t enjoyed a steak to its fullest potential until a prime cut of your meat of choice is served to you on a steaming volcanic stone. Uchu specializes in different types of meat (including the local delicacy, alpaca) cooked to perfection and brought to the table on a personal hot stone for the diner. Thanks to the presentation, the restaurant ensures that every bite will be as hot as the first. Any future steak dinner you’ll have might be ruined.
Prepare yourself for an interesting dining experience if you make plans to eat at Fallen Angel. With tables made of bathtubs and real fish swimming under your plate, you’ll find it hard to concentrate on much else. Luckily the food and drinks are stellar, so you’ll quickly forget about the sea life in favor of your dinner.
For the mornings that you’re craving a bit of home, head to Jack’s Café for perfectly brewed coffee and breakfast offerings including cinnamon French toast or yogurt with muesli that will rival New York City’s best.
It isn’t a trip to South America if you don’t enjoy at least one empanada. Stop into this adorable little café for a light afternoon snack. Order the Aji de gallina empanada and a café con leche to keep you going throughout the remainder of your day.
Where to Shop:
You’ll quickly learn that the majority of stores in Cusco sell the exact same souvenirs – Inca crosses, tapestries, alpaca products, and trinkets. If you’re looking for high end alpaca clothing, stick to the stores, but if you’re looking for cute, kitschy items for friends and family back home, head to one of the many markets and haggle for your price.
What To Do:
Book your tickets on the Inca Trail through a tour group before you book your plane tickets. These go fast, as only 200 tourists are allowed on the trail every day.
For the traditional four-day, three-night hike from Kilometer 82 to Machu Picchu, look no further than Enigma. They employ a stellar group of porters and chefs who will take care of your every need–from carrying your tents to cooking three course meals. On top of the porters who make the trip possible, and power ahead of you on the hike, carrying upwards of forty pounds, Enigma provides two tour guides who will become your cheerleaders, doctors, teachers and best friends over the course of the trip. If you’re lucky enough to snag Erik as your tour guide, it will ensure you a fantastic trek through the mountains, full of information and memories that will last.
Once you arrive in Machu Picchu on the fourth day, your group will enjoy a two hour guided tour of the ruins, followed by free time before heading back to Cusco. If you want to climb the additional mountain, Wayna Picchu, make sure to book those tickets in advance, but take into consideration the fact that you'll have just hiked 26 miles. It's an extra 45 minutes up and 45 minutes down on the final day and Wayna Picchu is definitely an advanced hike.
What To Pack:
Cusco is a very casual, laid back town. The majority of the tourists you’ll see are backpackers either acclimating to the altitude before their hike or spending one last day in town before heading out. Keep the heels at home since all of the streets are cobblestones and make sure to pack layers as it gets cold at night.
For your hike on the Inca Trail, focus on moisture wicking fibers. Bring at least three pairs of workout pants or a pair of hiking pants and a new top for each day. Buy compression socks, a light sweater and a fleece. The temperature varies so much during that day that you’ll be pulling items on and off as you hike.
Make sure to buy a good pair of hiking boots before the trip and wear them in before you leave. I love the BIOM Terraim Plus pair from Ecco – they were waterproof, sturdy, and supported my ankles, but light enough that they didn’t add extra effort to picking up my legs.
Don’t forget a good rain jacket, especially if you’re going during the rainy season. I loved this Goode Rider Let It Rain Jacket because it was light weight enough to wear over my fleece and has a ton of pockets, which you’ll quickly realize are essential. You’ll want to grab a poncho while you’re in Cusco too, just in case. These are super cheap (around $1.50) so you can throw it away after your hike.
It goes without saying that there are no electrical outlets along the hike. If you’re taking pictures on your iPhone or you’re listening to your iPod while hiking, you’ll want to bring along an external charger. This portable power bank from RadioShack is super lightweight and will provide you with enough charge to get you back to civilization.
Rent two hiking poles per person while you’re in Cusco to bring on the Inca Trail. You may think you’ll look funny, but your knees will thank you.